For many who know individuals with Down syndrome, the name just doesn’t make sense. Down? Really?!
The label “Down syndrome” is not meant to describe those with the condition as being “down”. As with many medical conditions, it is named after a physician who described the condition.
In the 1860’s, Dr. John Langdon Down published a paper describing a certain subset of his patients at the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots (as it was called at that time). In that era when Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution were new, Dr. Down theorized that these patients were a “regression” in the evolution of man. Their physical appearance reminded Dr. Down of people from Mongolia, so he termed the condition “Mongolian idiocy.” The condition was known by this name, or shortened to referring to the individuals with the condition as “Mongoloids” or “Mongols”.
In 1961, the medical journal Lancet ran a letter from noted geneticists calling for a re-naming of the condition. The editor selected “Down’s syndrome” and the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that description for the condition in 1965. And, that is how “Mongolian idiocy” became known as “Down’s syndrome”, and now commonly referred to as “Down syndrome” (losing the ‘s, since Dr. Down didn’t have the syndrome).
Interestingly, Dr. Down passed in 1896, never meeting his grandson and namesake. The younger John Langdon Down, was born in 1905 with Down syndrome, and grew to be a much loved member of the family. He died in the ancestral home at age 65.